Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Joy Is Our Real Compensation

There is a preschool teacher shortage here in Iceland where I'm visiting as part of the annual Play Iceland Conference, just as there is in much of the world. I think the reasons are obvious -- low pay, low prestige, and high stress -- and the answers are likewise obvious, but more often than not, those making the decisions tend to opt for stupidest solution which is to simply lower standards. Instead of higher pay (which would be a first step toward improving both prestige and stress) and taking other common sense measures to make ours a more attractive career choice, they tend to think the answer is to put our youngest citizens into the hands of less and less qualified people in settings with lower and lower bars.

This is not a gripe on my own behalf. Of course, like most Americans from every walk of life, I wouldn't object to a bit more money or a bit more free time, but I feel appreciated and respected, even loved, in my role as a preschool teacher. It's valuable, important work we do, and everywhere I go, be it Iceland, Australia, Greece, or Vietnam, I find myself amongst professionals dedicated to teaching and caring for these brand new people. No, the challenge is in finding enough. Turnover is high and schools everywhere are constantly on the look out. One school principal here told me that even if he didn't have a job opening, he would hire any qualified professional who walked through his door because they are so hard to find and he would be perfectly happy to keep someone around "in waiting." Indeed, many of us here on the Play Iceland trip have been, only half-jokingly, offered jobs. When I joked back, "But it might take a couple years for me to learn to speak Icelandic," I was told, "That's not a deal-breaker: you could just communicate in one of the other 99 languages of children."

Of course, if I were in charge of the world, I would probably start by doing something about a global economic system that seems to require two-income households. Those of us who grew up in what Peter Gray labels "the golden age of childhood," didn't attend preschools because we had parents at home with us, providing much of the teaching and care that preschools provide today by proxy -- and as dedicated as we are, we will usually be poor stand-ins for what a parent can provide during those vital early years. We learned everything we needed to learn by playing with other children, outdoors, with plenty of time, and minimal direct supervision. I often think of our little cooperative school in Seattle as a neighborhood or a village, a place where young children are being raised by a community, and where the standards we strive for are those of the village rather than those of the drill-and-kill crowd establishing standards today.

Every time I see this sculpture in Reykjavik, I think I'm looking at the fellow responsible for drill-and-kill education

That's not going to happen, I'm afraid, until the revolution, so in the meantime we're faced with a problem, a crisis even. Modern society has never been very good at valuing children, and when it does, it too often values them as economic assets, the workforce of tomorrow, wide-eyed innocents to be groomed for the factory or cubicle, taught to toe the line and pass the test rather than to pursue their passions and think for themselves. And, naturally, this not only sucks the joy out of education for children, it is also soul-crushing for those of us who remain professional preschool teachers because we genuinely care for children and know that this approach is not just wrong, but evil. This is where burn-out comes from. This is where high turnover comes from. This, I think, is the real source of our crisis.

Yesterday, a group of us visited the Stekkjaras preschool not far from Reykjavik. I've known some members of their staff for several years now, having met them both here on previous trips to Iceland and back home in Seattle. They are seasoned, dedicated, thoughtful, joyful professionals, people who I'm proud to call my colleagues and allies, and although this was my first time visiting their school, I found no surprises, nor did I expect any. The building is well-lit and modern, but we nevertheless spent most of our time outdoors in the crisp autumn weather. Indeed, the entire teaching staff was out there with us on the playground in the morning, not just supervising the children, but playing with them, down on their hands and knees in the sand, blowing bubbles, getting soaking wet in the water, laughing and calling out to one another and the children. My joyful friends have, naturally, created a joyful place, a place where teachers would want to work, where they are encouraged to play, to be silly, to make a mess and to be as joyful as the children.

It seems to me that this is one of the keys to addressing our crisis: joy. This is certainly why I was attracted to teaching preschool in the first place and why I intend to remain where I am as long as they'll have me. We will never be the highest paid profession. We may always be looked down upon by the suit-and-tie crowd. Even some of the stress is a natural part of caring for young children as any parent will tell you. But we cannot allow the stealers of childhood to have their way, to burden us with their tests and their fear-based schemes to fill even the earliest years with tedious academic instruction, to suck the joy out of our schools. Not only does it crush the children, it crushes us. Children must be allowed to learn the way they were designed to learn, which is through play, through their self-selected pursuits, through their passions and through their joy. That is not only what is best for the children, but likewise for the teachers: the joy is our real compensation.

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